Reporter follows in role model’s footsteps

By Michael Kapellas, Indiana University

INDIANAPOLIS — When all the other kids in Sig Christenson’s Houston neighborhood were planning on careers in medicine and engineering, he decided he wanted to be a newspaper reporter. Later he read “Brave Men,” a collection of columns from World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle, and tightened his focus.

“I did want to do what Ernie Pyle did,” Christenson said. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Christenson, a military affairs reporter with the San Antonio Express-News and the president of Military Reporters and Editors, on Saturday told a group of journalists, educators and citizen activists at the 2006 Freedom of Information Summit how the role of war correspondent has evolved since Pyle’s days.

Just like in Pyle’s days, Christenson and his fellow embedded reporters bonded quickly with the military personnel. The journalists and troops shared cigarettes and Christenson let them use his laptop computer and satellite phone. As a result, in April 2003, his phone bill was close to $40,000.

“We trusted them to keep us alive, and they were trusting us to not ruin their careers,” Christenson said.

There were times, Christenson said, when he felt like he was channeling Ernie Pyle. But the times had changed, however, in one important way. Pyle, Christenson said, fulfilled a dual role during his days as a reporter: war correspondent and propagandist. While modern war correspondents share a desire to see their country do well, their highest duty was to truth.

“Today, you can’t be a war correspondent and propagandist,” Christenson said. “It’s too bad in a way because you want to support your country but you have to be dedicated to telling the truth and trying not to burnish it too much.”

Sometimes the public, and especially the government, doesn’t share the same zest for facts. During the initial invasion, most of the news coming out of Iraq was good. As the insurgency began to take hold, however, the stories were growing increasingly bad.

When Christenson and his colleagues reported about the struggles from the frontlines of Iraq, Christenson said they were targets of a whisper campaign by either the administration, its supporters, or both, that portrayed journalists as only being interested in telling the bad news and never the good.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested the reason the good news wasn’t getting out was that the journalists were hiding in their hotels, a sentiment that was later echoed by radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.

“It’s a terrible slander,” said Christenson, who has been to Iraq three times and has proposed going back this summer.

According to the Poynter Institute, at least 87 journalists, or personnel accompanying them, have died during the war. Christenson shared bus rides with two of them: NBC correspondent David Bloom, who died of a pulmonary embolism, and Michael Kelly of the Washington Post, who died in a Humvee accident near Baghdad. Christenson, like Pyle, ended up writing about colleagues lost in the war. It’s one similarity Christenson isn’t happy to share with his hero.

“Pyle wrote about everything,” Christenson said. “When you read Pyle’s book you read virtually about everything that happens in war. None of us will ever replicate what he did. We’re all just walking in his shadow.”